The Virgin of the Pillar

November 03, 2022  •  Leave a Comment

I heard the music before I saw the Virgin.

It was October 12 in Seville, Spain, and I was trying to pick a path through the maze of cobblestone streets in the barrio of Santa Cruz. (It moritifies me to resort to the cliche of a maze, but I can't think of another way to describe those streets.)

The music came to my ears the way music comes to you when you're approaching a college football stadium on game day. You hear the thud of the drums, and then, as you get closer, you pick up the melody of the horns and the woodwinds.

I realized right away that what I was hearing and beginning to see was a procession in honor of the Virgin of the Pillar. That was because, a few days earlier, in Madrid, I'd asked a taxi driver why October 12 is Spain's national holiday, its Fourth of July. It turned out there is a bit of ambiguity in Spain surrounding the meaning of the date.

My driver replied that it was the national holiday because it was the day on which Columbus discovered Anerica. I replied, in my fluent Spanglish, that Columbus has been getting a bad rap on the American side of the Atlantic in recent years. ("There is not good talk about Columbus in America right now," I think I actually said.) Schoolchildren, I went on, are no longer taught that Columbus discovered America--which of course he did not. They're probably taught that Columbus, on October 12, inaugurated the era of European imperialism in the Western Hemisphere. Which is actually correct.

That was all right, my driver said. Spain had its own revisionist historians. But if Columbus ever became so politically incorrect as to forfeit his role in the national celebration, he said, Spain has long had Version B of the national holiday. That was the Feast of the Virgin of the Pillar.

I googled the story a bit later. It seems that in the year 40 A.D., St. James, one of the original twelve apostles, was in what was then Roman Hispania, trying to convert the local heathens. Things were not going well. One night, tired and discouraged, he knelt on the banks of the River Ebro, outside the city of Zaragoza. He prayed, and the Virgin Mary answered him. Though she was at that time living in Jerusalem, she did what the Catholic Church refers to as a feat of bilocation. She, and an accompanying host of angels, managed to be simulteously in Spain and Jerusalem. In Spain, she was hovering over a pillar. Hence the name.

Not only did Spain become a Catholic country after this appearance. In the 19th Century, as Napoleon's armies besieged Zaragoza, the Spanish forces, inspired by the Virgin, rebuffed them. A year later, the French returned. Though this time they were successful, when they sacked the city they steered clear of the shrine to the Virgin of the Pillar. Except, that is, for one French officer who stole a jewel from the shrine to take home as a present to his wife. In his next battle, one of his legs got shot off. There's no virgin like a virgin that teaches those arrogant French a lesson, right?

Thus the Virgin of the Pillar became a patriotic, as well as a religious figure in Spain. Sometime later, she  also became the patroness of Spain's Civil Guard, the national police force. This put the Virgin squarely on the side not only of the one true Faith, and of vengeance against those arrogant French, but of law and order, as it was practiced in Spain under General Franco. She was, in other words, a right-wing symbol. This raised the possibility that the same Spaniards who disapproved of venerating Columbus might not like venerating the Virgin of the Pillar, either. But that is an argument for another day.

I did not have to walk very fast to catch up to the procession. It was moving very slowly, in fits and starts, through the neighborhood. The statue of the Virgin, garbed in gold and white, rose above smaller figures (St. James and his men, I guess). There was, of course, a silver pillar beneath her. The assemblage was surrounded by white flowers and candles in crystal  hurricane holders, all mounted on a gilded float. Clouds of cloying incense rose through the evening air.

It was difficult to tell whether this was a spontaneous gesture of popular devotion or a carefully staged event. There wasn't really a big crowd. Most of the marchers were members of a band called "The Cigarboxes." Why the name, I do not know. But I found a web site for the group suggesting that the members are at least semi-professional musicians and they specialize in playing religious events. 

Two or three members of the Civil Guard accompanied the float. They wore their dress uniforms, with the black patent leather caps called Tricornios. Despite the Tricornios, they looked stern.

And there were acolytes, both male and female, dressed in elaborate gold vestments and intricate white lace.  One of them, a girl with a red-and-gold (the colors of the Spanish flag) ribbon in her hair, seemed on the verge of being sick as she gamely swung her censer. It appeared to be of silver, and I wondered if perhaps it was silver that Spanish conquistadors, set on the trail by Columbus, had brought back from the Americas.

The city government in Seville hadn't even bothered to ban parking along the parade route, so the procession had to squeeze into the space between parked cars and the opposite curb, which was none too wide. I don't know if this was a political statement or not. I know that when there's a parade in Chicago for St. Patrick's Day (the Irish vote) or Columbus Day (the Italian vote), you will not see any cars parked along the route. But in Seville, the mayor is Antonio Munoz Martinez, a member of the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party. Maybe he wouldn't care to remove parked cars for the convenience of a church procession. The antipathy between the Church and the Left in Spain has a long history.


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